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Tennessee lab isn’t trying to open parallel universe portal

June 29, 2022 GMT

CLAIM: Scientists at a laboratory in Tennessee are trying to figure out whether parallel universes exist by attempting to open a portal into another dimension.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in eastern Tennessee conducted an experiment in 2019 to study a type of “exotic” neutron behavior, which some news outlets referred to as searching for “portals” to “parallel” realities. But a spokesperson for the lab and the lead researcher told The Associated Press that such descriptions mischaracterize the experiment. The spokesperson said the use of the word “portal” was figurative, and the team “was not exploring a literal portal to a parallel universe.”

THE FACTS: Widely shared social media posts this month mischaracterized the past work of researchers at a lab in Tennessee, claiming they were conducting an experiment straight out of a science fiction movie — attempting to open a portal to an alternate dimension.

“Scientists in Tennessee working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in eastern Tennessee, have announced that they’re trying to figure out whether or not parallel universes exist,” claimed one Facebook post that received more than 130,000 shares. “They revealed that they’re trying to open a portal into another dimension.”

But the researchers say that claim really is fiction.

“My reaction to reading a headline like that is to say, ‘well, that sounds really cool. I wonder what they’re doing because it really doesn’t sound like my research,’” joked Leah Broussard, the scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory who led the project.

Sara Shoemaker, a spokesperson for the lab, added that, while an entertaining idea, the research doesn’t have anything to do with portals or parallel universes the way they are described in the popular online posts.

“A ‘portal’ in this case is a figurative concept used in the physics community,” explained Shoemaker. “The team’s experiments were not exploring a literal portal to a parallel universe.”

The research actually involved searching for exotic behaviors of neutrons, including potential interactions between the subatomic particles and a type of theorized dark matter called “mirror matter.”

Broussard explained that if you take a neutron out of an atom, it becomes unstable, and decays into a proton. Scientists have measured the total rate of decay, and compared it to the rate at which it turns into a proton, finding the two figures disagree. The question posed by this discrepancy is called the neutron lifetime puzzle.

Broussard said she and her team sought to test a potential hypothesis that could explain it: that the neutrons could be transforming into something else, something called dark matter.

Broussard said that while dark matter has yet to be observed and researchers still don’t fully understand it, it is thought to make up the majority of matter in the universe. While referred to as “dark,” she clarified that it doesn’t imply anything sinister. It’s called dark because it can’t be seen, the AP has reported.

Meanwhile, the theorized mirror sector, sometimes called a mirror universe, is thought to be “just another copy of the particles and the interactions we have in our universe,” Broussard explained. She said that it is not the same thing as a parallel universe because it would exist in the same spacetime as, and “very much part of,” our universe.

Because of this, claims suggesting her research aimed to access a parallel universe — or determine whether or not such a realm exists — miss the mark.

Instead, the team designed an experiment that would test the theory that sometimes neutrons might be transforming into mirror neutrons, the dark-matter twin, by seeing if they could “watch neutrons going through a wall” that would normally stop them, Broussard said.

The process of the neutrons being sent through the wall has been figuratively described as moving through a “portal,” but that doesn’t mean that the neutrons are being sent to a mysterious other dimension, separate from our own, both she and Shoemaker said. Shoemaker added that past reporting by news outlets “had fun taking liberties with the concept,” comparing the so-called portal to a doorway accessing alternate realities and other Hollywood tropes.

Ultimately, the team did not observe any neutrons on the other side of the wall, meaning this particular experiment did not find evidence of such “mirror neutrons,” nor could it answer the neutron lifetime puzzle. Those results were outlined in the peer-reviewed, scientific journal Physical Review Letters in May.

“We were able to prove that that interaction could not be strong enough to explain the neutron lifetime puzzle,” Broussard said. “It could still be there. It could just be weaker than we were sensitive to. We’re still interested in continuing to search and take what we’ve learned and build even better experiments and more powerful or better optimized instruments.”

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.